5 February 2010
21 Shevat 5770
One of the most unique and meaningful aspects of Judaism for me is its concept of communal revelation. God reveals God’s self on Mount Sinai to all of B’nei Yisrael, who stand in a circle around the mountain in order to experience God’s presence together. This week’s parsha, in particular Shemot (Exodus) 19, describes the preparation for the revelatory experience at Sinai and the giving of Aseret HaDibrot (the 10 “commandments” or “utterances”). There are many hints in the text about how a community prepares itself for communal revelation and the nature of the experience of that community when the revelation actually takes place. There are also hints about what it was like for God to reveal (or attempt to reveal) God’s self to an entire community at once. God’s experience and God’s challenge – on both practical and spiritual levels – resonate with me as an educator this week.
Among the many instructions God gives to Moshe about how B’nei Yisrael should prepare themselves for the revelation, God instructs Moshe not once but twice to warn the people not to touch or approach the mountain during the experience (Shemot 19:12, 13, 21, 22). In the second warning, God explains that, if they break through toward the mountain to see or get closer to God, “v’nafal mimenu rav – and many from them will fall (presumably, die)” (19:21). In Hebrew, the word “fall – nafal” is written in the singular form, while “many – rav” refers to more than one person who will fall if they approach the mountain. Picking up on this subtle grammatical difficulty and quoting a Midrash, Rashi explains God’s intentions: “Each person who will fall, even though the person is an individual, is as important to Me as the many.” The text intentionally blurs the distinction between singular and plural because, in God’s eyes, the distinction is blurred between individual and community.
In this model of communal revelation, God sees and relates to each individual person and B’nei Yisrael as a whole simultaneously. On a practical level, this means that God must speak “in seventy different languages,” in order for each person to hear God “according to his or her own capacities.” On a spiritual or emotional level, it means that paradoxically, even though one individual’s fall might be necessary in order to maintain the integrity of the community, in God’s eyes, losing even one person would be as tragic as losing His connection with the community as a whole.
These tensions are profound and emotional for us as educators, leaders, and parents, as well. We have relationships with and responsibility to every child, student, and person, as well as to an entire class, family, school, community. We must create the conditions in which every child can learn and grow “l’fi darco – according to his or her way” in the context of a community of learners. We need the capacity to see, love, and value every child the way that Rashi describes God’s valuing of every person at Sinai; and, we need the strength to balance our relationships with and responsibilities to individual and community, a mandate that, at times, will feel as uplifting as revelation, and, at times, will feel as tragic as “v’nafal mimenu rav.”
Rabbi Marc Baker